Affirmative Action, White Victimhood, and Twentysomething Talk

What follows is a letter I wrote to the listserv e-grad, a forum for discussing local and national issues facing graduate students, in which I responded to what I saw as unhelpful analyses of the causes of the truly horrible job market for new Ph.D.s in the humanities. For much more thoughtful takes on affirmative action which haven't received too much public attention as of yet, see Patricia Williams's essays "The Obliging Shell" (in The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor) and "White Men Can't Count" (in The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice), essays by Robert Post, Michael Rogin, Troy Duster, Judith Butler, Barbara Christian, and Richard Walker in Representations 55 (Summer 1996), Dana Takagi's The Retreat from Race: Asian-American Admissions and Racial Politics, the introduction to Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, ed. Kimberle Crenshaw et al., Stephen Steinberg's book, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy, and The House That Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain, ed. Wahneema Lubiano (particularly the essay by David Roediger, which specifically addresses affirmative action). See also the special issue analyzing the claims and practices of the diversity management movement (which sets itself up as a replacement for affirmative action) in Social Text 44 (1995). If you like what follows, or at least find it thought-provoking, you'll find these works of crucial importance.

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Date: Wed, 18 Jan 1995 09:56:08 -0500 (EST)
From: Bruce Neal Simon (
To: e-grad@rutvm1.bitnet
Subject: Re: us poor white males

An anecdote first: I was playing in a golf tournament a year or two ago in upstate NY and my partner, a fellow grad student, put aside her contempt for the game/sport and rooted for/made fun of me for the whole 18 holes. After finishing (badly, as usual) I somehow got into a conversation with the tournament director, who, when he found out that my partner and I were grad students, said to me jocularly: "Don't worry--soon white males will be a minority, too" or words to that effect. Some crack about affirmative action or minorities taking over from an older white male to a younger one. A direct insult to the Korean-Canadian woman standing right in front of him. So what did I do? Blank stare, change subject, get the fuck away from the situation. Real smart. Real brave. As if letting him indulge in the fantasy (and believe me, it is a fantasy) that white males are embattled at Princeton was doing anybody a favor.

In retrospect (i.e., two seconds later), I had all sorts of comebacks to him, which I will not relate. But I found it amazing that the simple presence of my partner at a golf tournament (the only person not white at the tournament) would lead almost directly to the thought "they're taking over" in one privileged old dude's mind. Like white males are in so much trouble these days. Like history hasn't happened. Like when Faulkner said, "The past isn't dead, it's not even past," he was on drugs (uh--other than alcohol!) or something. Like institutions and cultures don't change slower than we'd like (stories of women's bathrooms with urinals in them are still fairly common in 1995!). Like we really have a color-blind society, today in the Rodney (not Martin Luther) King era. "Oh woe is me, I'm a white male and the deck is stacked against me."

To that older dude at the golf course, I wish I had said what I'm going to say here: Get real! Read a little. Look at some stats. Ask some questions. What kinds of jobs are the so-called undeserving beneficiaries of affirmative action actually getting these days? How about white males? Do you really think that the heart of WASP privilege, the Ivy League (why else do you think Newt hates--or claims to hate--it?), is a hotbed of radicals and separatists? That those who are not white and male don't face tougher tenure battles and a different classroom environment (with respect to issues of respect, authority, collegiality, and everything that comes with that) than white males? Do you really think that back in the days when all higher education institutions were all-white and all-male, folks from "diverse" geographic areas (locals and far away exotics, you know, Texans and such [JOKE!]; or, for public schools, in-state vs. out-of-state applicants), legacies (sons of alumni) and athletes weren't getting a form of affirmative action (i.e., preference in admissions for non-academic reasons)? Or rather, weren't all whites benefitting from a closed market until very recently, and isn't it utopian to believe that we have simply overcome the effects of that history by wishing it were so? Now that a monopoly has begun to be busted, previously privileged groups are going to face more competition, and are going to "lose" jobs that previously would have been "theirs" (think of the assumptions underlying those words!). But I would argue that affirmative action is not a zero-sum game in the end. It improves the quality of higher education. And that to reduce these issues to a matter of being against "racial preferences" and for "merit" misses the fact that merit means different things in different educational sites, and covers over the fact that institutions often have very different goals (see Hazel Carby's "The Multicultural Wars" in Black Popular Culture for some excellent stats and arguments on these points, too).

Probably the most important part of Higher Education Under Fire is the transcription of the dialogue among TDC and NAS members and other folks on pp. 163-200. A model I think for rigor and care, as well as for moving beyond simple solutions, cardboard cutouts of those we disagree with, and simple binaries of left and right--like ShaunAnne's posts. What follows does not achieve that level of discussion (remains in a little bit oversimplified anti-conservativism mode), and for that I apologize, but this is an issue I care about and I'd rather put these ideas on the table quickly than continue to read posts, go to the boiling point, and suppress a response....

So, to those who oppose affirmative action, some "deep thoughts":

For starters, check out Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. (1994), especially pages 53-76, 95-160, for an analysis of the ways that neo-conservatives (and neo-liberals) have rearticulated notions of fairness and equality in the 80s and 90s. The project of color-blindness is not ideologically neutral, according to Omi and Winant, nor is it logically sound or historically accurate. What it is is a rearticulation of often legitimate free-floating resentment and anxiety to what is to my mind an unsound project, for some of the reasons contained in the first half of this post.

I would argue that many of the anti-affirmative action posts so far have either wittingly or unwittingly taken up this ahistoricized notion of formal equality (which Patricia Williams, Kimberle Crenshaw, and so many others have very ably poked holes in). With a twist. The "twentysomething twist," that is. I quote conservative policy analysts Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, in 13th Gen, first among many conservative attempts to articulate (link) generational politics to a conservative agenda:

Whatever went wrong, 13ers [their cutesy name for the first post-boomer generation]--not Boomers--have gotten the brunt of the backlash. Again and again, America has gotten fed up with Boom-inspired transgressions. But after taking aim at the giant collective Boomer ego and winding up with a club to bash them for all the damage they did, America has always swung late, missed, and (POW!) hit the next bunch of saps to come walking by. (45)

I'll spare you the rest of Gen X, with its facile anti-institutionalism, its fake defense of misunderstood young people (read white males), its pop history, and its search for scapegoats. I don't have time to develop this argument here, but I would suggest that what generation talk enables is a sense of victimhood for young white males. It enables them to take on a rhetoric of victimhood and act as a special interest group clamoring for aid. And I'll bet anything that older white folks are just itching to help them out. Putting aside the irony of the right taking up the victimology it has so long criticized, I would argue that what generation talk adds up to (so far) is a movement among apprentice elites for inclusion into previously all white, all male (and only grudgingly different) sites of power ([plug alert! plug alert!] check out Critical Matrix 7.2 [1993] for the beginnings of this analysis [plug alert! plug alert!]).

It doesn't have to be this way. We can recognize the legitimate anxiety of folks like me without joining either the New Right or the New Democrats. But we can at least ask folks like me to stop blaming a group or a single policy for what is a structural problem facing all graduate students. We should organize as graduate students and not fall into infighting.


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Here are some links that look very useful if you want to find out more about the issues I'm raising here: